One of these days, take a moment to engage your elders on the past. Sit down, ask them something about the past, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly they will open up and recount what they experienced during some of the most trying times of the modern age. In conversation their memories will be brought to life with a color and immediacy that comes only from another living, breathing individual. Too often the word history conjures up the image of dead things, dusty and buried away in libraries. However, it’s hard to maintain that gut reaction once you are a part of the act from which history began: elders simply passing on their stories to the next generation.
As a Story Scholar in Lucknow with the 1947 Partition Archive, I have had the pleasure of recording and preserving the memories of those who lived through the tumultuous years of Independence and Partition. What might come to mind here is the image of an American student struggling with an oversized bag full of equipment, scampering from buses to rickshaws across anarchic roads, sweating in the Indian summer heat. What might not come to mind however are the incredible outcomes that make my journeys far more than mere archival work. These are the moments in which families insist I stay for both chai and a meal, over which more is shared than I could have ever imagined. Elderly couples have invited me to their extended family’s religious rituals without a question about my own faith. Most importantly, I have been rewarded with the overwhelming gratitude and occasional tears that come from their knowing that there are still people out there willing to listen.
The practice of history—especially with regard to an event like Partition that took place almost seven decades ago—may seem strange in a fellowship dedicated to “service in India.” However, by recording an oral history, you give back immediately by listening to people’s stories and in the long-term by documenting them. Just the simple act of giving your ears, undivided focus, and time is seva–service in every sense of the word. Many of our elders will be surprised to find that you are willing to engage them, especially in an age of constant distraction, where we are always busy “at” work, checking our emails, chatting away—always somewhere else but here and now with this individual. The inviolable foundation of oral history lies in taking the time to fully immerse yourself in another person’s memories and recollections. Besides their appreciation, you gain wisdom from the mistakes they made and the lessons they acquired in the tragic and triumphant times they went through. I have had the opportunity to deal with a pivotal and emotionally charged event like Partition, but there are many such moments in modern history whose witnesses may be waiting to tell their own version of the story.
In the context of India, its many struggles today and the upcoming elections, those who lived through Partition have always repeated to me:
Transcend the politics of division. Aim towards higher goals like the independence won by our generation. Remember, though—that victory too came at terrible, avoidable costs.
We are telling you this, they conclude, so you know better for next time. And there—you have the point of history.
By going the full length and documenting an oral history, you have commemorated the life of an individual through a recording that can live on long after they have gone. It’s a way of adding to the shared human consciousness so we can better contextualize ourselves and our world today. In the future, others will dive into the documented story not for a dry retelling of events, but for a unique and particular perspective of a subject who lived through such events. It goes without saying that your documentation might never compare to the actual moment of that retelling. However, if some part of that documented story leaves some mark on another—perhaps even inspiring them in the future—your work has come to full fruition. The memory has been leased new life by guiding the life of another. What better way is there to pay it back to both generations young and old?
Not long after you begin this kind of work you may realize that a certain generation (or their ability to remember) may not have that many years left, as has been my case with those remaining from the Partition years. I experience this harrowing finality on a regular basis whenever I discover that someone has fallen seriously ill or is in the hospital. Even worse was this morning when I found that a near-centenarian I was scheduled to interview later in the week passed away yesterday. If you don’t seize the opportunity for those generations to relive and recount their past now, soon enough you might never be able to.
Engaging in oral history is a pleasure for the same reasons we enjoy any kind of story performed and retold as song, drama, literature, and artistic expression in general. It is a transmission of experience you get to see relived by the speaker in the animation of their expressions and the silent pauses punctuating painful recollection, sometimes preceding tears, sometimes pride. Even beyond seeing it as an act of service, consider oral history as a kind of treasure hunt in which you find out things you never knew about your elders and their pasts—secrets deep and dark, struggles trying and triumphant, tales that if not heard now never will be. The elders in your family are an excellent place to start! Begin with them and shift outwards, to their friends, those in your neighborhood and your communities at large. As should be the case with all service, the end goal is to pay it forward to the communities that have given so much to you and of which you are a part. Do this first and foremost for them, and in turn for your own fulfillment. Join or start your own archival and oral history projects (here’s ours if you have an interest in the Partition era)! Give back to the public consciousness by preserving the past and feeding the rich body of human heritage. It’ll be a source of strength for generations to come.